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Auction winners write the next chapter for Never Never Land nursery rhyme characters

Half a century ago, a collection of life-size statues turned a piece of Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park into a whimsical escape from reality — a place unlike anywhere else in the Pacific Northwest at the time.

For decades, nursery rhyme characters like Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs jumped off the pages of classic storybooks and into the woods at Point Defiance. Now, a small group of loyal fans are keeping those stories alive.

In September, the statues that comprised the exhibits went up for auction. In total, Metro Parks Tacoma sold 35 items that, until then, had collected dust in storage for years awaiting an uncertain future.

But who are these people who collectively spent more than $61,000 to bring home pieces of a now-defunct theme park? As one of them put it, they’re “regular people of regular means” who care a lot about this quirky chapter of Tacoma history. And all of them have different ideas for preserving the relics.

In the woods near Penrose Point State Park on Key Peninsula, Rod Collen and his girlfriend, Shannon Garrett, are building a home away from their Tacoma home, which is less than a mile from Point Defiance. And they are building something on the property that you’ve probably never seen before: a 700-square-foot cabin shaped like a giant mushroom.

Every weekend for more than two years, they have worked on the structure and transformed the two acres around it into a fantasy world.

“This is like our legacy,” Collen told KNKX during a tour. “We’ve created something that’s completely unique. There won’t be two of these anywhere in the world.”

And there’s something else that will make this place one of a kind.

Their project includes a quarter-mile art trail decorated with odds and ends from estate sales, garage sales and thrift stores that’s meant to be explored.

And it’s growing all the time. Soon, the main attraction will be Three Men in a Tub, Miss Muffet and Little Jack Horner — complete with a plum on his thumb — that Collen purchased in the auction for just under $6,000.

Collen says it’s more than he ever imagined spending on something like that. But he says it’s hard to put a price on a piece of his childhood, a slice of history cherished by so many people.

“My initial reaction was, ‘Oh, I want that,’ but then it was like, ‘Oh, I don’t need that,’” he told KNKX Public Radio. “And then having two weeks to think about it before the auction closed I was like, ‘Oh, I gotta have that.’”

Art trail mushroom cabin Key Peninsula Never Never Land
Parker Miles Blohm, KNKX
A picture frame hangs from a tree in the woods on Key Peninsula, part of the art trail in progress at the mushroom cabin under construction by Rod Collen and Shannon Garrett.

Collen wasn’t alone. The auction was competitive. He and others who purchased items were surprised they won at all.

Greg, who prefers not to share his last name, won Little Pig and Wolf from “Three Little Pigs” and the goats and troll from “Three Billy Goats Gruff.”

“How they were displayed in Never Never Land was the goats were on a bridge and the troll was in action of sliding down the hill after one of the billy goats knocked him down,” said Greg, who plans to recreate exhibits in his yard. “I have a water feature with a bridge, and I’m going to put them in that.”

Billy goats gruff Never Never Land
Metro Parks Tacoma
A historical photo of the Three Billy Goats Gruff exhibit at Never Never Land. Greg, who prefers not to share his last name, is recreating this exhibit in his yard.

Mark Knecht said Mary’s lambs will fit perfectly in his wife’s whimsical garden that she named Narnia, which is located at their home on the Washington coast.

“In the Narnia garden, my wife has a sculpture of a sea serpent. She has a figurine of a troll; I think his name’s Fred,” Knecht said during a pit stop en route to the lambs’ new home. “So I think these will just be part of the beauty of that garden.”

Narnia garden Never Never Land
Courtesy of Mark Knecht
Mary's lambs are seen at Mark Knecht's home in Long Beach, Washington. They are now a permanent fixture in his wife's garden, which she named Narnia.

To understand the strong desire people feel to own these statues, it’s important to understand their storied past.

For decades, Never Never Land welcomed park visitors with a giant Humpty Dumpty sitting on a stack of storybooks. It’s an iconic image for many people who grew up in Tacoma. Trails covering 10 wooded acres were peppered with depictions of two dozen classic stories, like Old Mother Hubbard and Hansel and Gretel. Live mice scurried through the clock from Hickory Dickory Dock. And kids played on a slide cascading out of the Old Lady’s giant shoe.

The park opened on the Fourth of July in 1964, created by Canadian Alfred Pettersen. It was privately operated on leased land until Metro Parks purchased it in 1986.

Old Lady's giant shoe Never Never Land
Metro Parks Tacoma
A historical photo of kids playing on the slide inside the Old Lady's giant shoe at Never Never Land.

Claire Keller-Scholz, a historian for Metro Parks, helped rehome the statues. They had to go through an extensive deaccession process in order to be auctioned off.

Keller-Scholz says there was a lot of energy in those early years of the park. Storytellers did live performances, and families traveled long distances to visit.

“This is certainly one of those pieces of Tacoma history that really attracts a lot of attention in a really personal way. It’s people who have memories of going with their friends and their family,” Keller-Scholz said during a walk through the woods of the old Never Never Land site. “So it is something that is very tied to that nostalgic childhood and that has a really strong pull for a lot of people.”

But over time, the park’s popularity also attracted some unwanted attention. Loitering, vandalism and even theft made upkeep difficult. Eventually, the challenges of managing the open-air attraction were too great. Never Never Land closed in the early 2000s. Then in 2011, an arsonist set fire to the pagoda where the statues were stored, destroying half the collection.

At least one attempt to reopen the park fizzled out. Now, the statues are in the care of dedicated fans who all agree it’s the next best thing to reopening the park.

That iconic Humpty Dumpty at the Never Never Land entrance was one of the most popular items, selling for nearly $10,000.

Humpty now lives 25 miles away in Graham. He made the journey to his new home on a flatbed truck and is in the care of Jennifer Pellegrini and her family.

Humpty Dumpty Never Never Land flatbed truck
Courtesy of Metro Parks Tacoma
A sighting of Humpty Dumpty in the wild, in transit to his new home in Graham.

Pellegrini says Humpty is the centerpiece for a magical collection created for her children who have special needs. With a nonverbal son who has severe autism, she says family outings can be challenging. So they have made their home a destination.

“They play Donkey Kong on the big console next to a switchboard that has a Predicta on top of it, and that’s their version of normal, while Ronald McDonald is blinking above them,” Pellegrini said. “But the way it’s put together is like a mosaic, and we’ve done that as a family.”

Jennifer Pellegrini's home Graham Never Never Land humpty
A rotary phone booth at the home of Graham resident Jennifer Pellegrini. Her family now owns the giant Humpty Dumpty that used to sit at the entrance of Never Never Land. Humpty will be the centerpiece of a quirky collection that Pellegrini's family has created for her children, who have special needs.

Pellegrini, who is from Oregon, doesn’t have her own memories of Never Never Land — those are all her husband’s memories. But she says it’s special to watch him preserve a piece of his childhood and share it with their kids.

Pellegrini says there is also a responsibility to share that nostalgia with people outside her home. For her, that means working with Metro Parks to bring Humpty to public places, perhaps even Point Defiance, to raise awareness about autism. She wants to teach people that they can create the world they want for their kids just like her family has.

“It doesn’t need to be a big, 11-foot fiberglass egg. It could be a magical tent with Christmas lights, the twinkle lights and sheets, and just the right story with just the right voices,” she said. “That somehow we could just build our own world to escape to and everyone’s world gets to be theirs.”

Back in the woods on Key Peninsula, Rod Collen and Shannon Garrett are already building their own little world to escape to — in the spirit of Never Never Land. It’s a world they plan to share with others, too.

“I imagine everybody who’s purchased these feels the same way,” he said, “that you feel some responsibility to them to not keep it to yourself.”

Right now, the Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker, Miss Muffet and Jack Horner are huddled in Collen’s Tacoma home until their magical mushroom cabin is finished. Then Collen plans to rent the cabin out for people to explore, hopefully by next summer.

New home Miss Muffet, Three Men in a Tub, Little Jack Horner
Courtesy of Rod Collen
Miss Muffet, the Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker and Little Jack Horner are pictured in their temporary Tacoma home as they await relocation along Rod Collen's art trail on Key Peninsula.

If you can’t make it out to see the statues in their new home, there are still reminders of Never Never Land hidden along the wooded trails of their old one at Point Defiance.

All you need to explore them is a little imagination.

Kari Plog is an award-winning reporter covering the South Sound, including Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties. Before transitioning to public radio in 2018, Kari worked as a print journalist at The News Tribune in Tacoma.